Hand-wringing over subway and bus fare-beaters seems to be one of those annual traditions in New York City. This year, with the City Council pressuring the MTA over its lack of dollars and authority board members seeking to squeeze out as much money as possible from as many sources as possible, those watching the watchers have been ramping up the anti-fare-beating rhetoric.
Recently, The Staten Island Advance has been beating this drum but with numbers pulled seemingly from thin air. They ran an informal poll that found 18.5 percent of bus riders skipping out on the fare and seemed to extrapolate losses of $328 million for the MTA due to such scofflaws. They repeated that figure in an article on the City Council questioning, but then they backtracked in an editorial. Their revised figure is $40 million systemwide which seems in line with the MTA’s public proclamations.
The made-up numbers are nearly besides the point. A Post article seemingly sets the record straight and notes that bus fare beaters cost the MTA around $14 million a year while subway turnstile-jumpers cost another $20 million or so annually. Considering how the MTA could restore all of their 2010 service cuts if they could capture the revenue, it sounds like a considerable sum, but it’s not.
In their 2012 adopted budget, the MTA projects over $3.6 billion in fares from New York City Transit services alone. Even if The Advance’s estimate of $40 million is correct, we are looking at a bleed rate of around 1.11%. Just about any business would kill for such a low rate, but with the MTA, it’s a problem that requires attention and a solution.
So just what solution are New York City politicos suggesting? Spending on more enforcement, of course. “We need additional police on buses to ensure fares are paid,” Council member Debi Rose said to The Advance. “The system is bleeding revenue because of fare-beaters.” She later added more rhetoric: “The system is hemorrhaging and we need to triage the situation and stop the loss of revenue wherever it occurs.”
In an ideal situation, the MTA would have a fare capture rate of 100 percent. And in an ideal world, the Second Ave. Subway would have been completed decades ago. With Council members advocating for more enforcement, we’re in a situation in which a solution is looking for a problem. After all, how much should the MTA or New York City spend to stem the fare-beating tide? Considering the low rates, would spending a dollar on more enforcement lead to a net increase in revenue or would the MTA be spending a dollar to capture a dollar?
It’s easy for politicians to take to their soap boxes in favor of something that sounds good. It’s harder to think through the problem in order to do the right thing. I don’t think fare-beating has a problem, and although I’m not going to advocate for hopping the turnstile, I question the need to spend much more to catch fare beaters. Targeted enforcement along problem bus lines as well as some smarter policies should do the trick just fine.